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Are We Over-Reliant On Technology? This Dutch Philosopher Believes We Might Be.

A Dutch philosopher suggests only adopting new technology if it complements human potential.

Koert van Mensvoort (photo credit: Jeroen Broekmans)

In April this year, Dutch artist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort published an impassioned “Letter to Humanity” addressed to all seven billion people on Earth. The founder of the Next Nature Network contends that humanity has entered a new evolutionary phase and is at a critical crossroads.

“Technology has become so omnipresent on our planet that it is transforming all life on earth,” he writes. “A technosphere has developed on top of the existing biosphere. Its impact is comparable to the emergence of animals 500 million years ago.”

The number of technological “species” now outnumber the planet’s biotic species, and continues to grow at an extraordinary rate. Life on Earth is completely dependent on technology and it is inconceivable to imagine the future of humanity without thinking about the future of technology.

Although van Mensvoort commends humanity’s ingenuity in his open letter, he reflects that being “encapsulated within technological networks” also poses significant risks and challenges. “We tend to underestimate how intimately our lives are intertwined with technology and how much it’s done for us,” he says.

“I see two possible paths along which you might develop a co-evolutionary relationship with technology: the dream path and the nightmare one. I believe a different awareness of the relationship between people, nature and technology may help us find a more desirable path towards the future.”

In the “nightmare” scenario, van Mensvoort warns that human beings are in danger of ending up being the ones who serve technology, robbing them of their human potential. “Sometimes I feel we are sleepwalking into our technological future. Technology not only alters our environment, it ultimately alters us,” he states.

However, van Mensvoort is confident that humanity will continue along the “dream” path by choosing and creating technology that takes human needs as its starting point, magnifies our best qualities and supports us in our weaknesses – what he calls “technology that extends our senses rather than numbing them; technology that plays to our strengths rather than rendering us superfluous; technology that serves humanity as a whole”.

In other words, humanity must visualise how it wants to evolve and employ technology to make this happen. “Human life used to be more harsh than it is today,” writes van Mensvoort. “Technology brought us more food, less diseases, longer life spans. Let’s focus on the quality of our lives and the celebration of our human potential.”

In his heartening letter, which took over a year to complete, van Mensvoort calls upon human beings to ask one simple question of every technological change that appears in our lives: “Does this increase my humanity?”

He admits that the answer usually won’t be black or white. “More often, it will be something like 60 percent yes, 40 percent no. But if all of us consistently opt for technology that increases our humanity, I know we’ll be OK.”

Although the impact of future technology cannot be predicted, van Mensvoort urges spending more time envisioning its possible effects through discussion, scenarios and design. This is the primary goal of the Next Nature Network, a foundation he helms that examines the changing notion of nature and technology through a series of inventive and surprising projects.

The NANO Supermarket is one such example. This store-of-the-future presents a range of speculative products that could change our everyday lives, from programmable wine that can transform from Chianti to Cabernet in the microwave, to animal-free, lab-grown meat. These conceptual creations challenge the envisioning of potential futures, to help better decide what kind is wanted.

Van Mensvoort is optimistic that humanity will become more aware of its co-evolutionary relationship with technology, and find a better balance with its human potential. “Technology is the materialisation of our human intelligence in the world. In a way, it is a self-portrait of humanity. I hope we can paint a beautiful portrait that we can be proud of.”

Read Koert van Mensvoort’s “Letter to Humanity” here.